Category Archives: teaching tips

Learning to read, one sound at a time

A six-year-old kindergartener learning to read VC and CVC words worked with me yesterday for the first time.  We met the day before via zoom.  He was nervous, sitting on his grandmother’s lap for support.

I started by assessing his phonics skills.  Because he doesn’t know me and has not worked online, his responses to the phonics assessment I did might not be spot on.  After a few lessons, when he is more relaxed, I will have a better idea of his skill level.

 

But for now he was able to show me he knows letter names, consonant sounds and short vowel sounds.  He can sound VC words easily.  When he reads CVC words, he cannot “slide” all the sounds together to form words.  So that is where my reading instruction will begin.

 

Yesterday we worked using letter tiles.  I put before him the word “at,” and then I added one onset letter sound at a time, forming words like “fat” and “rat.”  He sounded out words from several word families using short a, o, and u.  After 20 minutes, his squirming became excessive, and we ended the lesson.  Today I will teach him again for another short lesson.

 

His grandmother showed me a “beginner” picture book the boy has, but as is often true, that book is not a good “beginner” book for students learning phonics.  In that book, advanced reading words are mixed in with sight words and CVC words.  I recommended she set it aside for a few months.

 

She wondered if she should use flash cards with words printed on them to help her grandson learn.  If the words are sight words which cannot be sounded out phonetically—words like “are” and “the”—then yes.  But if the words are sight words, I said, the boy should learn them by sounding them out.  Otherwise he might think he should memorize the look of a word to pronounce it.

 

Should he guess at words?  No.  If a child learns to read following the rules of phonics, eventually he will be able to sound out almost any word, even long words like “dinosaur” and “alphabet.”  Teaching a child to guess introduces a habit which will hobble him the rest of his reading life.

 

This student has learned to read the way phonics experts recommend, sounding out each letter.  With time, almost all CVC words will become sight words for this student and he will no longer need to sound them out  But to reach that stage of reading, he needs practice sounding out words.

Teach ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ

Suppose you have taught your child VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words using ă and ŏ and the 16 consonants that always sound the same at the onset of words.  You have had your child read lists of words with ă and ŏ shuffled.  Your child is able to pronounce those words correctly.

Now it is time to move on to ŭ.  I recommend teaching ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ.  In my teaching experience, children recognize the sound associated with ŭ quicker than the sounds of either ĕ and ĭ.  Some children do have trouble pronouncing ŭ, but they don’t confuse the sound with either ĕ or ĭ.  They can distinguish a difference between ŭ and ĕ / ĭ.  Children have a harder time distinguishing between the sounds of ĕ and ĭ.  So I recommend teaching ă, ŏ and ŭ in that order.

Some of the commercially available support materials you might use with your child do not sequence the short-vowel words in this order.  In that case, I recommend you jump ahead to the ŭ word section and return to the ĕ and ĭ sections later.

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words include:

up hub pub rub tub
bud dud Judd mud Rudd
bug dug hug jug lug
dull gull hull lull null
but cut gut nut rut

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words with ă and ŏ in sentences include:

  • Judd cut a nut.
  • Rudd dug up a bug.
  • Tess can run in the mud but not Tom.
  • Tom dug a rut.
  • Jan can hug a mutt.

How to teach words using ă and ŏ

Suppose you have taught your child the 16 consonant sounds which don’t vary at the beginning of words: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.  Now you are ready to teach vowel sounds.

Explain what vowels are

Because you will be using the words vowel and consonant with your child as you teach, make sure you take time to explain what these words mean.  Vowel refers to five letters all the time (a, e, i, o, and u) and two letters sometimes (y and w).  Consonant refers to all the other letters and to y and w most of the time.  For now you can leave out the y and w, but when you teach small words like by and now, mention that y and w act as vowels sometimes.

Should you say short / closed vowels?  Or long / open vowels? 

Today many support materials refer to vowels followed by a consonant in the same syllable (cat, hot) as closed vowels.  Years ago these vowels were called short vowels, and they were pictured with a curve over the vowel as in ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ.  Similarly, vowels coming at the end of a syllable (go, hero) are today called open vowels by some reading support workbooks.  Previously they were called long vowels and pictured with a horizontal line over them as in ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū.  I will use the terms short and long since those are the terms most parents recognize.  I will use markings over vowels such as ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ when referring to a particular short vowel sound and ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū when referring to a particular long vowel sound.

Naming vowel sounds as short or long is important because we need a vocabulary to use with children when we refer to vowels pronounced like their letter names and vowels pronounced more softly.  Whichever terms you use, make sure your child understands them.

Teaching words with a ă sound

While you are teaching the 16 consistent consonant-letter sounds, you can begin to teach one short vowel sound.  I recommend starting with the letter ă because almost all phonics support materials start with the vowel ă, and because ă might be the easiest short vowel sound to master.  The support materials I suggest for my students are the Explode the Code series.  That series starts with ă words.

When I am teaching in person, I use flash cards with pictures of words beginning with ă such as alligator, astronaut, and apple.  I recommend you teach your child to say “ă as in apple” to reinforce the letter connected to the sound.

Choose five or six consonant letter sounds your child has mastered.  Using letter tiles, form two and three letter words such as am, an, at, bat, bam, tan, and mat, etc.  Place the letter tiles for one word an inch or so apart and ask your child to say the sounds, keeping the picture of the apple on the table too, for reference.  Repeat saying the sounds as you slowly move the letters closer and closer together until the child says the word.  It might take many tries, but usually there is a Eureka! moment when the child realizes she is reading a word, not just letter sounds.  Reading teachers call these tiny words CVC words, meaning consonant-vowel-consonant words.

Gradually add more consonant sounds and form more words with ă as the vowel sound.  If the child loses interest, one way to extend the lesson is to use her name and write a goofy sentence such as Kim is a pan or Kim is a map.  Another way is to use your name and have her end the sentence.  Mom is a ____.  Teach her that the vowel goes first or in the middle.  Try mispronouncing a word she writes and ask her if you said it correctly.

You can buy magnetic cards which you can cut into small rectangles to attach to the back of letter tiles.  Then you can work in a metal lasagna pan or pizza pan or on the refrigerator.  If your child is four or five, a short lesson (ten minutes) teaching in one mode followed by another short lesson in another mode (writing words on an iPad or laptop, writing in a workbook) might be all she can handle for one session.  I have given one-hour lessons to a four-year-old, but I needed to have six mini-lessons to sustain her interest.

Teaching words with a ŏ sound

When, after several days or weeks, you are sure your child can read ă words, move on to ŏ words.  Create a reference card—an octopus, for example.  Work on two and three letter ŏ words such as on, off, odd, Oz, nod, fob, and Bob, etc.  After several days or weeks—whatever it takes—mix ŏ words with ă words.

To reinforce your work, read together picture books.  When you come to a word she can pronounce, point to it and ask her to say the word.  Two or three times are enough to show her that what she is learning applies to her real world.

 

Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.

 

How to teach a child to read

When my older son neared the end of first grade, his teachers told me he would need to repeat because he could not read.  What!  I couldn’t believe it. I phoned my brother, a special ed teacher, and he said, “Relax. You can bring him up to grade level if you work with him all summer.”  He recommended I buy Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, a then out-of-favor approach to teaching reading using phonics. My brother said to turn to the word list at the back of the book and start there.  I trusted my brother, bought the book, and worked with my son every day.  He hated the lessons—lists of progressively more difficult words—but in September he started second grade reading on grade level.

Thus began my interest in how to teach reading.  Time and research have proven Flesch and my brother right.  A systematic—not random—phonics-based approach yields the best results in teaching children to read.  Even so, today many teachers do not teach reading using phonics.  And as a result, many children fail to learn to read.

If your child has been left behind, or if you want to be sure that never happens, this blog is for you.  In coming weeks I will advise parents and teachers of beginning readers

1) how to teach reading skills by sounding out letter patterns, and

2) in what order to teach those letter patterns. 

If your child already knows how to read some words, you can assess his or her skills by using the word lists below to know where to begin.

These lessons start with one sound represented by one letter, a simple yet reliable decoding system.  While these lessons introduce the most common letter patterns of English, they do not introduce them all.  That is not necessary.  As children read widely, they encounter new letter patterns which they figure out from context clues, by asking questions, or by using a dictionary.

If you choose to supplement the ideas in coming lessons with lessons from reading sources like Why Johnny Can’t Read or Explode the Code (both good), their lessons might not sequence letter sounds or letter patterns in the same order as I do.  That is because reading experts do not agree upon a single sequence for teaching reading.  The sequence I will use here extends the one-sound, one-letter pattern as long as possible, reinforcing what seems logical to little children.

IMPORTANT: Beware of any reading advice which encourages your child to guess at words, a strategy that can lead to lifelong reading problems.  Instead, ask your child to sound out words based on the rules of phonics.  That leads to reading independence.

Phonics assessment

The following words are listed in the same order as the lessons I will share in coming weeks.  If your child can read some words, and you wonder where to begin teaching her phonics, ask her to read these words in order.  When she starts making mistakes, stop her and turn to my corresponding lesson.  Proceed from there.

bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz

lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman

grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck

chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth

star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor

muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon

complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after

tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich

skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure

need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul

fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high

earn, worm, rook, pool

fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt

boil, so, pound, down

comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim

total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital

apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp

inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod

advance, offence, fence

gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed

sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating

rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest

easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives

keys, monkeys, armies, carried

action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials

brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer

parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge

lose, sugar, nature, sure

graph, Phil, then, moth

bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign

whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob

could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist

alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word

decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine

Ask children to use body language and gestures to learn

When my one-year-old son was still mostly pre-verbal, I “read” to him books about a baby doing the simplest of tasks—jumping, crouching, and clapping, for example.  Each time I turned the page, I asked him, “What’s the baby doing?”  He would act out the drawing—jumping, crouching low and applauding—all without words.

child making letter T with his body

My son was engaging in the world of books long before he had verbal vocabulary to explain what he saw.  He used what he had—the gestures, the motions of his body—to “say” what he saw.

Another time, I worked with a third grader who had excellent verbal fluency, but she could not read.  We worked on phonics, and she slowly acquired skills to take apart words into letter sounds and to assemble letter sounds into words.  She was an excellent actress, so when she would learn a vocabulary word, she would act it out—standing, moving about the room, using her whole body to memorize the meaning of a word.  I was flabbergasted.  And when she came upon a word she had previously acted out, she would go through the same motions—this time sitting in her seat—to remember what the word meant. 

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

Working with these children opened my mind to using gestures and body language to learn.  These  allow a child’s thinking to progress even when he doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain what he is thinking.  Or sometimes he does have the vocabulary, but it is quicker to respond with gestures than to recall the appropriate words.  What is “slope,” for example? Doesn’t lifting a hand and sliding it downward on a diagonal show understanding?  What is “ferocious”?  If a child bares her teeth and makes a growling sound, doesn’t she show that she knows that word?

Large numbers of children in preschool and in the primary grades are kinesthetic learners.  Yet teachers rarely call upon these children’s body language and gestures to help them learn.  With a little imagination, it’s possible.  Three students stand in a row, holding hands.  One student lets go.  Three minus one equals two.  A child curls herself into the letter “C.” Another creates a big “O” with her arms.  A third stands tall and stretches out both arms into a “T.”  They move close together.  “COT.”  Three students act out “ice” by hugging and not moving.  Three more act out “water” by making swimming strokes.  Three more act out “steam” by dancing rapidly.

Performing to learn takes time, yes.  But it’s also fun.  It engages students.  It uses many of the senses.  It works.

Techniques for teaching a young beginning reader

I learned to read when I was in first grade, when I was six years old going on seven.  But so many of the beginning readers I teach today are much younger.  Right now I am working with a five-year-old kindergartener, one of the youngest boys in his class.  Although he is bright and ready to learn to read, he is also fidgety and inattentive.

Maybe you are working at home during the pandemic with such a kindergartener?  How do you teach such a child without both you and he becoming frustrated?

The answer is to have multiple ways of teaching the same concept, so when attention wanes, you can try different approaches.

Suppose you are teaching blends at the beginning of short-vowel one-syllable words.  For such a child, I would schedule either multiple ten-minute lessons, or a thirty-minute lesson divided into three parts.  What could those parts include?

  • Review using lists for five minutes.  Reading lists of words is a good way to begin.  Reading lists is boring, so move on quickly.  If the words are printed in large type with lots of white space, that helps the words to look “friendly.”
  • Using flash cards make great reviews too.  They also can become boring quickly.
  • Making words of letter tiles covers a lot of words in a short amount of time.
  • Reading words on BINGO-like cards of words turns learning into fun.  Nine words per card (three words across by three words down) is few enough not to overwhelm the child.  Ask the student to cover a word when you pronounce it.  Then ask the child to pronounce the word and you cover it.  Pennies or tiny candies used as markers offer incentive to play this game.
  • Reading cartoons in workbooks can be fun.  The drawings attract the child, but sometimes they offer clues to words which the child does not sound out, so be careful.
  • Working on appropriate workbook pages from a supplementary series is another approach.
  • Having the child handwrite words reinforces them and improves printing skills.
  • “Writing” words in a dish of sand or sugar can seem more like fun  than learning.  I would use this type lesson at the end of the time period because other approaches might seem boring in comparison.
  • The same goes for online learning.  Often it is more attractive than “analog” methods.  But old-fashioned methods can target the child’s specific needs quicker.

Add “Alphablocks” to your strategies for teaching phonics

If your beginning reader is enamored with all things technology, let me highly recommend a colorful animated series which teaches basic phonics.

Alphablocks

Alphablocks is a step-by-step reading program created by British literacy experts and award-winning web designers.  The “stars” consist of 26 colorful letter blocks with distinctive faces who jump, twirl, sing, and dance to form words like “hen” and “tub.”

The series is divided into five levels.  Level 1 teaches young viewers to recognize sounds associated with the most commonly used letters, creating short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Level 2 introduces the rest of the alphabet.  Level 3 teaches about “letter teams” or digraphs.  Level 4 teaches blends.  Level 5 introduces long vowels formed with “Magic E.”

Segments last about four or five minutes.  The innocent letter blocks find themselves in silly situations as they hunt for other letter blocks to help them form words.

I watched with my five-year-old grandson who read aloud the words as they  formed onscreen.  Even his three-year-old brother was engaged.  At one point I said, “Now I wonder what letter that is?” as a letter skipped across the TV screen.  “L,” shouted the three-year-old.  He was right.

We watched on Netflix, but Alphablocks is also available through YouTube, and apps can be downloaded free.  A companion series on numbers is also available for preschoolers and primary grade students.

For more information, go to https://wwwlearningblocks.tv.

 

5 ways to keep beginning readers engaged

The younger the reading student, the more activities a teacher needs to keep the student engaged during a lesson.  For four- and five-year-olds, I come prepared with a bagful of reading activities such as

  • A stack of pictures showing CVC words (flag, map, dog, cat, and pen) which the student sorts into two piles: those that have the desired vowel or consonant sound, and those that don’t.
  • Letter tiles which I use to form words, phrases and sentences for the student to read. Sentences using the student’s own name attract the youngest readers.  Letting the student create some of the words. also keeps the student engaged.
  • Stories written with the simplest CVC vocabulary which the student and I read together, and then which she reads independently.
  • Twelve pictures of rhyming words on index cards .

Another kind of reading assignment that my youngest reading students like is reading and answering silly questions like the following:

  1. Can an ant wink to a cat? Yes   No
  2. Can a bug land on a lip? Yes   No
  3. Will a duck swim in a mug? Yes   No
  4. Can a big cat fit in a bag? Yes   No
  5. Will a dog dig with a pen? Yes   No

The questions consist of whatever examples of the reading concept we are studying at the time such as CVC words, blends, or two-syllable short-vowel words.  Almost all the questions are ridiculous and the more ridiculous the better.  Having colored pencils or markers to use intensifies the fun.

I find that the more hands-on the activity, the better.  Early readers sometimes cannot print letters, but they can make ovals around words or draw matching lines.  They can hold a small stack of pictures and sort them into piles.  They can move around letter tiles.

The more busy their bodies are, the more likely they are to stay engaged.

Six questions to test your beginning reader knowledge

What is the best method for learning to read, based on research?

  • primarily using phonics
  • figuring out words from their context or from pictures
  • memorizing words (sight words, whole language)

Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.What two printed letters are the hardest for children to distinguish?

  • p and q
  • q and g
  • b and d
  • m and n

Which two short vowel sounds are hardest for children to distinguish?

  • a and e
  • e and i
  • o and u
  • a and o

In order to learn to read, do children need to recite and/or recognize the ABC’s in alphabetical order?

  • yes
  • no

Which comes first?

  • recognizing a letter
  • recognizing a sound?

How many letter sounds does a child need to hear and speak in order to speak standard American English?

  • 26
  • 23
  • 42

Answers

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole LanguagePrimarily using phonics is the best method for learning to read. The US government did a comprehensive study of hundreds of research studies on how children learn to read and discovered that using a phonics-based approach produces the best results.

Lower case “b” and “d” are the hardest letter shapes for children to distinguish. Most children are confused at first.  Sometimes this confusion lasts into third grade, but with time, all children figure it out.

Short “e” and “i” are the hardest letter sounds to distinguish. Most reading series start by teaching short “a” followed by short “o” because these two sounds are the easiest to distinguish.  Expect lots of errors when “e” and “i” words are learned, and expect learning them will take more time.  Short “u” is harder than “a” and “o,” but since there are far fewer such words, learning “u” is not so hard as learning “e” and “i.

Beginning readers do not need to know their ABC’s in order. Alphabetic order is a second or third grade skill, so it doesn’t need to be learned immediately.

Recognizing a sound is more important than recognizing a letter at first. Beginning readers need to be able to hear sounds and to pronounce them aloud.  They do not need an alphabet in front of them to do that.  Toddlers can learn to recognize sounds long before they are ready to read letters.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

.

American standard English has 42 sounds. Some of the 26 letters duplicate sounds such as “c” and “k,” “c” and “s,” “s” and “z,” and “qu” and “kw.”  Many vowel sounds can be written multiple ways (ugly, Hannah, other).  Some sounds take two letters to make (th, ch, sh).  Regional dialects can add or subtract a sound or two, but in general there are 42 separate sounds in American English.